Pyeng Threadgill approaching the stage as Oya. Photo Courtesy of Rosalida Medina.

CONTRA-TIEMPO‘s latest piece, Agua Furiosa, is an eruption of movement that uses dance and non-verbal dramatization to elaborate on several themes, including race, arrogance and water, all of which capitalizes on extreme energy, but somehow still feels disconnected overall.

Agua Furiosa was presented as a multi-act piece without intermission at UCLA’s Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater on January 14. Ella, portrayed by Pyeng Threadgill, ties the show together through her vocalizations, which serve as transitions between strings of mini-performances. Modeled after Oya, the Afro-Cuban deity of wind, air, lightning, fertility and magic, she sings her lines acapella, instructing her children — five women and three men clad in everyday, neutral-colored pants shirts and dresses — to breathe, drink and live. She is a nurturing force, guiding the characters through their deaths as they conclude each section by pulling dark shrouds that can be seen hanging from the ceiling over their bodies. Ella’s presence is a small beacon of hope that manifests itself as a wish for humanity to be kinder both to Mother Earth and one another.

All 10 Performers On Stage At Once. Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Schenck.

All ten performers on the stage at once. Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Schenck.

Artistic Director Ana Maria Alvarez uses choreography to highlight negative tendencies that make up human nature. Characters take turns falling victim to their counterparts as they are isolated in each dramatization. However, the cyclical predictability does not allow for much growth or development with the duplicate storylines mimicking each other throughout the span of the show. Scenes single out each performer in ways that range from pointing and laughing to pushing members away and out of the crowd on stage. There is never a clear indication as to why any dancer is secluded, which emphasizes mankind’s unforgiveable cruelty, but also dilutes the show’s focus, making it difficult to trace the progression of the acts. Each is presented with an air of equal importance that serves to propel the group from one scene to another. The only exception is at the very end, when Samad Guerra speaks for the first time, asking for a stop to his abuse. Ella re-emerges for one final moment and instructs everyone to imagine a better way of living. This hammers in the main point of the entire performance after the same idea of a non-compassionate humanity is similarly illustrated over and over again.

Samad Guerra Bringing The Show To Its Climax. Photo Courtesy of Alfonso Gomez.

Samad Guerra brings the show to its climax. Photo Courtesy of Alfonso Gomez.

In direct contrast, Agua Furiosa‘s erratic dance portions vary from calculated precision to sporadic vivacity, incorporating the company’s distinguished urban Latin flavor. Set to a soundscape of spoken hisses and hums, single words said normally, then played backwards, clips of what sound like old television infomercials explaining the significance of water, and live drumming on plastic buckets, the characters allow themselves to be affected by beats and melody. Changes in tempo are punctuated by changes in Masha Tsimring‘s soft lighting design, which becomes brighter as the rhythm accelerates. The dancers project a compelling rawness in their movements, which elicits the greatest and most positive audience reaction. Jannet Galdamez‘s effortless-seeming dynamism in particular resulted in some of the loudest forms of call-and-response encouragement. When bursting into these pleasantly unexpected moments of pure dance, the troupe is either completely in sync or one individual is overtaken by music and displays their dedication through thrusts and sways. The viewer is left begging for more, making these scenes seem too short in comparison to the rest.

Human nature is predictable and cruel but to go through all of its faults and the unknown reasons why people do what they do leads to a repetition of what we already know. But when expressing the importance of unification and empathy through dance, the performance comes to life in a way that makes us feel Ella’s hope for transcendence and a final belief in ourselves and the world we live in.